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Environmental footprint of the battery value chain — life cycle assessment (LCA) as a measurement tool

This story is contributed by Gwendolyn Bailey, Tom Van Bellinghen and Benedicte Robertz

  • LCA is a valuable tool to identify environmental hotspots within the battery life cycle but is a complex exercise and can be challenging to compare and communicate the results.
  • The lack of quality process data and lack of standards specific to the battery industry contribute to the challenges of bringing LCA to the battery value chain. EU is working on ameliorating some of these issues.
  • The LCA for cathode material production reveals that one of the main contributing factors to global warming potential are the impacts related to electricity generation.
  • Umicore is serious about implementing LCA into its business and thus uses results from its LCA efforts to set newly minted climate targets.

What is LCA and why does it matter?

Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and electric vehicles (EV’s) are routinely evaluated in terms of environmental performance. Many journalists have speculated that EV’s may not be as environmentally friendly as initially perceived.This begs a host of questions: on what grounds? Says who? Validated by whom?​

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a standardized, science-based tool used to demonstrate the environmental friendliness of a given system or product. LCA takes into account all phases of the product’s life cycle, including direct and indirect emissions, looks at inputs and outputs for each phase, and converts them into an environmental impact. LCA was first employed in 1969 and has been used by various industry associations since, thereby providing LCA practitioners with some reliable environmental impact data. Thus, LCA and at the very least — greenhouse gas accounting — is not something new to industry in general.

In the 1890s, Rudolph Diesel’s namesake engine was hailed as a technological marvel and praised for its claims of reduced CO2 emissions. Today, these diesel engines are being phased out due to their hazardous NOx emissions and particulate matter. Had there been a comprehensive environmental assessment, these risks could have been identified earlier, eliminating misguided transitions.

In the development of new technologies, there has historically been an inclination to prioritize technical and short-term economic considerations over the environment. Clearly, the lack of proper assessments might have contributed to disastrous effects on our planet. Therefore, it is important to conduct LCAs to understand the environmental implications of mobility applications throughout their life cycle. The use of LCA in the battery value chain could provide a level-playing field if the LCA rules are clear and transparent.

Challenges of LCA — Data Availability, Consistent Scope and System Boundaries and Communication of Results

There are many LCA challenges to be found in the battery industry. The quality and comprehensiveness of the input data are critical to the final results. Many LCA publications rely on old databases and secondary data that are aggregated or have conflicting or incomplete system boundaries. The definition of the scope and boundaries is very important in LCA and the results can only be compared if the same definition is applied to each case. Moreover, the choice of the database and impact assessment can also lead to differences in results. Thus, two LCA studies analyzing the same product or material could sometimes be as different as comparing apples to donuts. Conflicting results call the conclusions into question. Tracing the factors behinds these differences is not so straightforward and more guidance is needed to grapple with these results. Based on some of these examples, it is clear that the LCA results can be conflicting, and that there are risks associated with using one set of assumptions over another.

LCA as a policy tool

In Europe, a project is in place to use LCA as a basis for environmental labelling for products sold on the EU market. This project is called: Product Environmental Footprint, or PEF. The PEF rules aim to provide instructions for conducting a proper LCA of a particular product. By entering some primary and activity data for your product, one should be able to generate PEF compatible results.

In October 2013, the European Commission launched the PEF/OEF pilot project (Product/Organization Environmental Footprint) in order to define a reference methodology for environmental impact assessment, based on the life cycle assessment approach. This was coupled with the idea to harmonize environmental labels for products to help consumers make educated choices so that consumers could make educated choices. There were 24 PEF pilots ranging from laundry detergents to batteries, each with PEF Category Rules on how to measure the life cycle environmental performance of the product category. The expectation is that PEF would be integrated in environmental policies.

While the pilot PEF provided a basic framework for a harmonized and more transparent environmental impact assessment of products, this methodology still requires many improvements before it can become a fully-fledged evaluation method. For instance, PEF uses proxies and some steps are incompletely covered. For instance, missing data are replaced by proxies that, by definition, imperfectly reflect the real data and similarly the real impact. Missing data may relate to complex components or even entire steps in the life cycle. The primary objective of the batteries PEF is to encourage the battery industry to bring out its measuring stick. The first step of the PEF roll-out would be for battery or battery material producers to simply apply the methodology and record the results. The next step would then be to set a baseline reference for each product.

LCA in practice for the cathode industry: Umicore

Umicore is a materials technology company which manufactures cathode chemistries for rechargeable battery materials. In the photo below, we zoom into the battery showing the inside of a battery cell to illustrate Umicore’s material technology: cathode materials on the aluminum sheet.

As a participant in the pilot PEF, Umicore helped define an auditable, enforceable, environmental evaluation metric that could be applied generally to battery products sold in the EU. Since global warming due to CO2 emissions has been identified as an important impact category, the abatement of the CO2 is the primary focus. One of the largest contributors to CO2 emissions for cathode material manufacturing stems from the need for intensive energy use; thus, the electricity grid mix is a big factor in determining the environmental footprint of cathode materials. Based on this understanding, Umicore has decided to use 100% green electricity to power its cathode materials production plant in Europe.

​Umicore’s closed loop approach and new sustainability targets

Umicore focuses on building a sustainable, closed-loop approach to cathode material production by heavily emphasizing activities such as recycling, responsible sourcing of raw materials, leveraging block chain technologies, as well as conducting environmental assessments. Therefore, Umicore has set newly minted climate targets and will go for net zero greenhouse gas emissions in scope 1 and 2 by 2035. LCA will be a valuable tool to help measure how close we are to that target when also scope 3 emissions, that is, those related to activities outside the company boundaries, are included.

Summary

The process of assessing environmental impacts requires sophisticated political, technical, and industrial alignment. Moreover, LCA must contain harmonized rules and methodologies for the calculation of claimed low carbon solutions. As there is a need for the battery industry to develop a reference point of sustainability, the implications of performing proper LCAs for the EV supply chain are rife with challenges but not taking the time to perform proper assessments is also not an option.

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Insights and ideas produced by and for battery experts in industry, academia, policy, and finance.

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